Welcome to my blog.

In 2008, I received a trial flight in a light aircraft - a flight which changed my life. After a mere thirty minutes in an asthmatic old Cessna, I decided I would become a pilot. It was love at first flight. As Leonardo Da Vinci famously said - Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”

However, like any relationship, there were highs (and there were puns!) and there were many moments where I thought I would never grasp this new skill.

After fifteen instructors, six flying schools and enough tears to fill a dam, I became a private pilot. And, because of a strong masochistic streak, I decided to study for my Commercial Pilot's Licence.

This blog is a working narrative of my time as a pilot, through my personal writing, my round Australia trip and my career as an aviation journalist, magazine editor, customer engagement manager for AvPlan EFB and aircraft salesperson for Cirrus Sydney.

Aviation has changed my life: through learning to fly I have discovered a part of myself that is resilient, organised and capable of great joy as a result of hard work, setbacks and learning.

In the words of Socrates, “Man must rise above the Earth – to the top of the atmosphere and beyond – for only thus will he fully understand the world in which he lives.”

Thanks for reading, and please feel free to email me with advice and suggestions on


Friday, November 15, 2013

Cirrus Factory Tour

It’s early on a Tuesday morning of the Oshkosh week and I’m sitting in the FBO of Wittman Regional Airport trying to contain my excitement. With me is Dave, an Aussie commercial pilot and instructor, and Robbie, a retired airline captain. Together, we’ve been invited to tour the Cirrus factory in Duluth, Minnesota and we’re here this morning awaiting our Cirrus for the one-hour flight to the factory.

Having always been fascinated by the Cirrus approach to design, marketing and safety, I’m delighted by the opportunity to visit the manufacturing plant; here’s a chance to see, first hand, whether the ‘Cirrus Vision’ begins from the ground up. Having toured Diamond and Rotax last year, I believe that the manufacturers’ ethos and identity is most alive on the factory floor: the attitude of the production team, the assembly systems and the interaction of the staff tell their own unique story about the company and its culture.

Our adventure begins with the arrival of our pilot, Bradley DeGusseme who leads us to one of the many Cirruses for factory tours.

While we were hoping to score a ride in the new Gen 5, Bradley apologised and said we’d have to ‘make do’ with the Gen 4 SR22T – hardly slumming it, I can assure you! While Bradley prepared the aircraft and safety brief, we were invited inside to begin what would be an hour of fabulous comfort and luxury. In a class of its own, Cirrus does things differently, with the pilot’s comfort and safety designed into every aspect of the aircraft. For instance, in addition to the CAPS (Cirrus Airframe Parachute System) for which the company is well-known, other safety features include hypoxia protection, electronic stability protection and a fail-safe system for recovery from unusual attitudes (known as ‘the blue button’) which will level the aircraft and hold altitude when activated. In terms of comfort the SR22T is air conditioned, roomy with impressive visibility. And boy, it’s fast too!

Added to the excitement of the day was a departure from Wittman during Oshkosh week, where Osh tower becomes the busiest control tower in the world. As I had flown-in a day before the show in a Bonanza formation of 108 aircraft, I had some idea of the well-timed dance that is arrival at Oshkosh. What I had forgotten is that arrivals and departures continue throughout the week in tight slots designed to fit around the aerial displays. We departed on Special Procedures, with radio work faster than a dj’s patter – it was head-spinningly quick. Bradley, as cool as a cucumber in a cocktail, handled it with grace and ease and before long we were airborne, IFR and heading to Duluth. With its 315hp, six-cylinder Continental working its magic, we climbed out at around 100 knots with the single lever control (both power and propeller, which is governed to 2500RPM) set to 36 inches of manifold pressure, and mixture full rich. We climbed to 6000ft for our one-hour flight to Duluth.

What impressed me most, after the 1700fpm climb, was the clean and sensibly laid out cockpit. The Cirrus Perspective avionics suite is so streamlined and uncluttered that even for a pilot with limited glass experience, the panel is intuitive. The layout - with the FMS keyboard, auto pilot and audio controls placed in a centre console, and only the CAPS system and lights above – create an ergonomic easy to scan cockpit, which reduces the chance of disorientation. Cirrus worked alongside Garmin to develop a Cirrus-specific integrated suite, which includes Garmin's innovative Synthetic Vision Technology (SVT).


With the autopilot engaged and the radio work completed Bradley and I chatted about Cirrus’ company values. “It’s a great company to work for and I see myself with long term prospects here,” he says of his already-dream-job. A young pilot not heading to the airlines? My curiosity was piqued. “There are plenty of opportunities in the company, to go in all sorts of directions: flight planning and ops, training, and later on, perhaps time in the Vision Jet. Cirrus is a diverse company, and I think the opportunities here are more exciting and more suitable to me than those offered by the airlines.”

Bringing the Outside In

With a cruise of 180kts, it seemed we were airborne for only minutes when Bradley began preparing for the approach into Duluth. As the ILS was u/s, we flew the approach on the localizer. However, the Cirrus Synthetic Vision made the approach appear exactly like an ILS, as Bradley flew through the pink boxes, known as the flight path marker, or ‘highway in the sky’.

“I love the flight path marker,” declared Bradley. “It’s been a hugely popular inclusion. You can tell at a glance whether you are on course and at altitude. The green flightpath marker will tell you where the aircraft is going with consideration of crosswinds, and the magenta rectangular pathways will guide you with increased precision en route or on approach. Anything that makes flying safer in potentially high stress situations, like short final in low visibility, wins my vote.”

Another vote for safety is the autopilot coupled go-around option.

“The autopilot remains connected and the aircraft automatically pitches up to a normal climb attitude and the missed approach segment is automatically activated. All you have to do is monitor and apply power as necessary,” explains Bradley.

At Duluth HQ, we’re introduced to Program Manager Marlene Grand, a Cirrus employee of fifteen years, whose enthusiasm and passion for the company is an asset. As in previous factory tours, safety spectacles were donned and photography forbidden (with a few exceptions at the start of the tour).

Tougher than Nails

The manufacturing of the composite parts and main structures occurs at the Grand Forks, North Dakota plant. The Duluth facility houses the company’s headquarters and main manufacturing and assembly. Using a wall mounted display, Marlene was able to show us how the carbon and glass fibre composite parts are produced using the rigorous Cirrus manufacturing techniques.

It takes over 10,000 samples to qualify a new material and process.

Upon arrival from Grand Forks, the composite parts arrive at the inventory section of the factory, where they are transferred to a grit blast booth prior to bonding. This prepares the composite for the next stage of manufacture. The parts are broken down into groups and delivered to the relevant sections of the floor.

Parts are cured after each bonding operation in order for the adhesive to attain the strength required for handling and movement through the facility. A final Post Cure later will ensure the material reaches its maximum strength. Bonded composite parts result in very light-weight, yet very strong, assemblies.

Waste not, Want not

Efficiency and effective waste management are the focus of the factory’s systems. Transport carts are used rather than boxes, which save time and packaging and allow the aircraft and parts to be wheeled around the factory with ease. “In our early days, we would use 14lbs of packaging for one prop!” comments Marlene. “Now, with this cart system, our parts are easily stackable and there is no waste – in time or product in the unpacking process – and we’re able to set an example as an environmentally conscious company.”

A two bin parts-in-parts-out system is in place to ensure the parts inventory system is at its most effective.

“We conducted lean manufacturing studies throughout the facility to determine where our largest bottlenecks and worst waste were occurring. Not having parts required, in each station, on time and on a consistent basis, was our biggest problem. The two bin system – where two bins of each part needed are stored in each station where they are used – provides many benefits. Parts are stored where they are required for use. An empty bin triggers a reorder so more parts are stocked before the second bin is empty. Rotation of bins drives First In First Out (FIFO) inventory control. Most importantly, technicians don’t have to leave their work stations or waste time looking for materials. Everything is on hand when needed and nothing is wasted!”

The entire floor is modelled on the same vision for efficiency and waste reduction. Staff vending machines are accessible with a staff badge, but rather than providing coffee or muesli bars, the machines provide office supplies, consumable materials and basic tools. “The office supplies being continually ordered by admin staff wereas taking up a huge chunk of time, in inventory and management. This way, each machine keeps track of what’s been taken via a central computer and we refill accordingly. The staff badge will allow access to all office supplies and production items such as paint brushes, cable ties, etc. Once again, this assures no waste and we don’t run out of needed items.”

Streamlined Materials; Maximum Efficiency

The fuselage is made in two halves and then joined together. The composite is so tough, technicians use diamond drill bits. Two sets of aircraft composite assemblies are placed in a specially configured oven and are ‘cured’ for seven hours at 200-210 degrees F.

Aluminium mesh is used to help dissipate lightning strikes and prevent damage to the composite structure. A Cirrus specific bonding adhesive is used. This custom formulation was developed jointly with the manufacturer after no product on the market met their requirements.

The main spar is made of carbon fibre and weighs around 60lbs, providing a considerable reduction in weight compared to the previous fiberglass spars. The main landing gear is manufactured from glass fibre. The fuel tanks are wet and sealed with epoxy resin and fuel tank sealant and are positioned around the main spar. Titanium panels are used for the ice protection system. The composite material is very durable and can withstand many minor impacts with no damage.

The first generation of Cirruses were built with homemade tools, but the second generation’s fuselage redesign prompted a new process, whereby a new uniform approach was introduced. Ceiling mounted winches were installed across the factory, allowing aircraft to be transported with ease. Bonding fixtures now allow parts to be cured in place, saving time and movement of parts and tools and increasing part quality. The company has also invested in a custom made drill and trim robot.

“Since the second generation, we can’t build aircraft fast enough,” commented Marlene. “We’ve streamlined all materials and processes for maximum efficiency. We are now building aircraft in 1575 hours, down from 3000 hours, due to implementation of lean manufacturing efforts throughout the facility.”

At the time of our tour, Cirrus was filling an order for the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF), who had ordered 25 custom-build aircraft for training. Due to harsh desert heat, the RSAF requested the aircraft be customised without rear windows, which Cirrus accepted. However, the demand for trainers from the Middle East has also inspired the company to research 100% UV resistant Perspex windows.

The console is made on a separate assembly line and each is custom built. After paint, engine and avionics are installed, the aircraft is ground run and tested. Then there is a full inspection, followed by sign-off for flight verification with a Cirrus-approved test pilot. The whole process takes eight weeks.

Chute Happens

The parachute straps of the trademark Cirrus aircraft recovery parachute system, or CAPS, are laid out in the fuselage skins (Marlene noted here that Cirrus had to construct larger tables to lay out the new chute for the Gen 5 Cirrus, as weight changes in the aircraft dictated a larger, stronger chute). The parachute system straps are designed to ‘unzip’ from the fuselage skins when deployed. Due to this design, when the chute is deployed, it minimises damage to the fuselage, supporting the possibility of repairing the aircraft after deployment of the parachute. Having said this, the landing after the deployment of CAPS doesn’t guarantee re-serviceability of the aircraft. “At the end of the day,” maintains Marlene, “Cirrus’ number one commitment is to saving lives. Machines can be replaced, Human lives cannot.”

When the chute is packed, it is compressed with a force of 23 tons, and then heated to ensure it remains compressed.

As of August 2013, there have been 50 known CAPS activations. Thirty seven of those have saved 77 lives; there have been no fatalities when CAPS has been activated within its demonstrated parameters.

Cirrus Communication

As Marlene concluded our tour, I mentioned that in addition to efficiency, morale in the factory appeared very buoyant. “Each staff member is an expert in their area,” explained Marlene. “We encourage very open channels of communication between staff and management and welcome suggestions for improvement in every area of the workplace. A lot of the practices you see on the factory floor have been born from ideas by the staff in that particular area. We always make staff’s ergonomic comfort a priority, and have constructed the factory with that in mind.”

As we waited for Bradley to pre-flight the SR22T for the return leg, I had a chat with a young staff member who was learning to fly in an SR20. Astonished that anyone would have the opportunity to learn to fly in such a sophisticated aircraft, I asked her how she was enjoying the glass cockpit. “It’s all I’ve ever known,” she said, “so I don’t have a point of comparison. All I know is that my future is with Cirrus, and therefore it’s a Cirrus I intend to fly. The staff rate to learn to fly an SR20 is $50 an hour, and I know I’m extremely privileged to have such an opportunity, so I’m certainly not going to waste it!” Dave and I looked at each other and said, “Crikey! Where are the application forms?”

To watch a short you-tube video of our trip to and from the factory in an SR22T, please visit www.aopa.com.au

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